LGBTQ+ Early- to Mid-20 Century Artists Celebrated at NMMA

If you were to limit yourself to popular gay literature from the 20th century, you might think that New York and San Francisco were the only places where LGBTQ people could live their lives openly in the pre-Stonewall era.

But you’d be wrong.

About 2,000 miles from The Big Apple, and 1,000 miles from The City by the Bay, is The City Different, a less-publicized pre-Stonewall enclave, where queer people thrived and lived openly for decades. And from now through September, you can experience work created by 20th-century out gay and lesbian artists who lived in Santa Fe, Taos, and surrounding areas at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

“Out West: Gay and Lesbian Artists in the Southwest 1900-1969” surveys the work of gay and lesbian artists in the American Southwest from the early twentieth century through the Stonewall Riots of 1969. “It puts the focus on a time when the face of queer representation changed dramatically in the United States,” says museum executive director Mark White.

Out in Santa Fe Before Stonewall

The exhibit explores the significant contributions gay and lesbian artists had in the American Southwest in the early twentieth century. While many queer artists built lives for themselves in less welcoming states, northern New Mexico, promised freedom and a sense of community. Long time queer locals know this, but this influence is rarely celebrated.

“It was my idea,” says Christian Waguespack, Head of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of 20th Century Art at NMMA. “It started about seven years ago when I started at the museum. My first exhibit was on Cady Wells, a contemporary of Georgia O’Keefe.”

Waguespack explains that Wells’ backstory reflected a common theme for the earlier part of the 20th century. “His family sent him to the Evans Ranch School in Tucson, a dude ranch that was meant to ‘toughen him up,’” he says. Wells actually enjoyed the experience and returned to Santa Fe as an adult.

“This planted the idea,” Waguespack adds. “Men could live openly here in the 1920s. I saw this pattern again and again. It struck me as interesting the number of people who were able to live such an open life in New Mexico during the early 20th century.”

“I wondered why nobody had ever put this show together before,” he emphasizes. “During the 20s and 30s, a lot of those queer artists decided Santa Fe was the place to be.”

A Historical and Cultural Shift

From a historical standpoint—although there is no clear date–there was a transition in the art world from modernism to post-modernism around Stonewall. “I wanted this exhibition to be a modernist show,” Waguespack explains.

“Out West …” features the work of over 20 early- to mid-20th century artists, including:

Anne Noggle (1922-2005), a photographer who flew missions in World War II and later gained renown for her series of photographs documenting how women age.

Maurice Grossman (1928-2010), a celebrated ceramics artist who did most of his work in Tucson, became known for his tireless dedication to LGBTQ rights.

Agnes Sims (1910-1990) a Pennsylvania transplant who moved to Santa Fe in 1938, became a building contractor, and drew inspiration from the region’s ancient petroglyphs, works which inspired her drawings, paintings, sculptures, and photographs.

Although most artists represented in “Out West…” are transplants, the show proudly features the work of indigenous artists. Among them is Hosteen Klah (1867-1937), whose work has provided inspiration for generations of Navajo artists.

A Lesson in Legacy

Waguespack is quick to note that Walter Cooper’s engaging memoir “Unbuttoned: Gay Life in the Santa Fe Art Scene” provided inspiration for “Out West…”

“So much of our queer history has been swept under the rug,” Cooper lamented. “It’s almost as if we never existed. People tend to underrate or ignore ‘the queer factor,’ the enormous impact gay folk have made on New Mexico’s unique cultural life.”

Moving forward, Waguespack hopes that visitors of this exhibition will “leave with an understanding of the dramatic way early gay and lesbian artists shaped the cultural landscape of our region.”

Pride Events Celebrate Out West

June is Pride Month in Santa Fe and NMMA has events planned to educate the public and draw more attention to “Out West,” both during and immediately after Pride.

On July 6, Waguespack will give a public talk on the early 20th century history of Gay and Lesbian Artists in the southwest. Meanwhile, the Out West Community day is set for Saturday, June 29. The Museum will be free to the public, and we will be hosting several activities in the museum and galleries, including a gallery talk with the Waguespack.

Mark Banham

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